BEIJING—In the two years before Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012, U.S. officials tried to size him up through a series of face-to-face meetings.
During talks in China in 2011, Mr. Xi, then vice president, asked about civilian control of the U.S. military, shared his thoughts on uprisings in the Middle East and spoke, unprompted, about his father, a renowned revolutionary.
When he visited the U.S. in 2012, he was relaxed and affable, chatting with students and posing for pictures with Magic Johnson at a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game.
The U.S. officials’ conclusion: Although Mr. Xi was far more confident and forthright than Hu Jintao, the stiff and scripted leader he would succeed, he likely shared his commitment to stable ties with Washington and closer integration with the U.S.-led global order.
Some even hoped Mr. Xi would kick-start stalled economic reforms.
It was one of the biggest strategic miscalculations of the post-Cold War era.
In the eight subsequent years, Mr. Xi has pursued an expansive, hypernationalistic vision of China’s future, displaying a desire for control and a talent for political maneuvering.
Drawing comparisons to Mao Zedong, he has crushed critics and potential rivals, revitalized the Communist Party and even scrapped presidential term limits so he can, if he chooses, rule for life.
Promising a “China Dream” of national renewal, he has mobilized China’s military to enforce territorial claims, forced up to a million Chinese Muslims into internment camps and curbed political freedoms in Hong Kong.
Now, with Covid-19 under control in China but still widespread across the U.S., he is promoting his self-styled, tech-enhanced update of Marxism as a superior alternative to free-market democracy—a “China solution” to global problems.
“It was clear he was not going to be a second Hu Jintao,” said Danny Russel, who as a senior Obama administration official attended several meetings with Mr. Xi, including in 2011 and 2012.
“What I underestimated about Xi Jinping was his tolerance for risk.”
Mr. Xi’s swift reversal of more than three decades of apparent movement toward collective leadership and a less intrusive party has surprised both U.S. officials and much of the Chinese elite. In hindsight, though, the roots of his approach are visible in key episodes of his life.
They include his father’s purge from the top party leadership, his teenage years in a Chinese village, his induction into the military and his exposure to nationalist and “new left” undercurrents in the party elite.
Mr. Xi’s autocratic turn also was catalyzed by a 2012 political scandal that upset the balance of power among the party elite and emboldened advocates of stronger, centralized leadership.
It gave Mr. Xi the justification he needed to sideline rivals, rebuild the party and revamp its ideology.
Today China follows a new political doctrine known as “Xi Jinping Thought,” which combines many attributes of different 20th-century authoritarians.
It reasserts the party’s Leninist role as the dominant force in all areas, including private business.
It revives Maoist methods of mass mobilization, uses digital surveillance to replicate Stalin’s totalitarian social controls and embraces a more muscular nationalism based on ethnicity that makes fewer allowances for minorities or residents of Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Above all, Xi Jinping Thought aims to grant Mr. Xi the legitimacy to remain in power and continue his quest to make China a rich, truly global power by 2049, the centenary of Mao’s victory.
Mr. Xi has been a popular leader, bolstered in part by positive coverage in state media.
Under his leadership, China has posted robust economic growth and eradicated extreme poverty, as well as curbing Covid-19 within its borders.
The nation’s growing international stature also has become a source of national pride.
“His goal is to make the whole world see China as a great power, and him as a key figure in making it great,” said Xiao Gongqin, a leading figure among scholars who advocate so-called enlightened autocracy in China. “At heart, he’s a nationalist.”
Mr. Xiao, based in Shanghai, counts himself a supporter. But like many in China’s elite, he said he worries Mr. Xi “lacks a spirit of compromise. That’s his shortcoming….And there is no mechanism to correct him.”
China’s government press office declined to comment, but arranged interviews with two professors at the Central Party School, the party’s top think tank and training academy.
Both said Mr. Xi hadn’t abandoned collective leadership, but declined to predict whether he would retire in 2022, when his current term is scheduled to end.
They described Xi Jinping Thought as “21st-Century Marxism,” saying his political thinking was shaped, in part, by his experiences in his youth.
“When he was young, his life was a little tortuous, but these twists and turns made comrade Xi Jinping what he is today,” said Han Qingxiang, one of the professors, who has conducted a study session on Marxism for top leaders.
“Only those who have suffered can achieve great things.”
One mistake many in China and abroad made about the new Chinese leader was hoping he would emulate his father, Xi Zhongxun, as a pioneer of economic reform and opponent of one-man rule after Mao’s death.
People who have spoken with Xi Jinping say he talks with pride about his father, who commanded Communist guerrillas in China’s northwest and became a vice premier after Mao’s 1949 victory.
What instead honed his political instincts, they say, were his austere upbringing and his family’s suffering after his father was purged from the leadership in 1962 and banished to central China for 13 years, mostly to work at a tractor factory, for supporting publication of a controversial book.
That set him apart from other leaders’ offspring, known as princelings, who in most cases endured less hardship.
It also left him fearful of disorder, determined to clear his family’s name and distrustful of China’s elite.
Like many other princelings, Xi Jinping, who is now 67 years old, spent his earliest years in exclusive schools and housing compounds, where he was raised to believe he was one of China’s future leaders.
His mother lived and worked at the Party School, so he and three siblings were mostly cared for by their father.
Xi Zhongxun was unusually strict and frugal, forcing his two sons to wear their elder sisters’ castoff clothes and shoes, and often lecturing them about his role in the revolution.
The father was prone to depression and bouts of violent rage, according to Joseph Torigian, an American University professor who is writing a book about Xi Zhongxun.
“The standout characteristic of this family was a father who was exceptionally disciplinarian and brutal,” Mr. Torigian said.
The Xi family was denounced and shunned by many peers after Xi Zhongxun’s purge from the leadership in 1962.
The abuse intensified after Mao launched his Cultural Revolution in 1966, unleashing Red Guard youths who assaulted and often killed teachers and other “class enemies.” Among those who died was Xi Jinping’s half sister.
Many princelings formed their own Red Guard unit. Xi Jinping, too young and tainted by his father to join, spent his time roaming the streets and reading books taken from deserted schools and libraries, including Charles de Gaulle’s memoirs and Richard Nixon’s autobiography, according to a family friend.
He rarely speaks of those years, but in interviews before taking power, he said they hardened his view of politics.
He recalled denouncing his father, being jailed three times and having Red Guards threaten him with execution.
“People who have little contact with power, who are far from it, always see these things as mysterious and novel,” he said in 2000.
“But what I see is not just the superficial things: the power, the flowers, the glory, the applause. I see the bullpens”—a reference to Red Guard detention houses—”and how people can blow hot and cold. I understand politics on a deeper level.”
Like his father, he maintained faith in the party, blaming his family’s ordeals on Mao’s security chief, according to people who know the family.
At the same time, they say, he learned from the misfortunes of his father, who was rehabilitated in 1978 and helped establish China’s first Special Economic Zone to attract foreign investment, then was sidelined again in the late 1980s.
One conclusion Xi Jinping reached, these people say, was that politics is a winner-take-all contest. Another was that he should conceal his own views until he had real power.
Once he was in office, his controlling instincts and distrust of peers became clear as he moved away from consensus decision-making and targeted potential rivals in an anticorruption campaign.
His desire for control trumped an early pledge to allow the market a “decisive role” in the economy.
“He reached a conclusion that unrestrained markets were in fact going to present a massive problem for long-term party control,” said Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister who has met Mr. Xi several times, most recently in November 2019.
“The party’s in his veins. He does not buy any argument, direct or indirect, about any form of peaceful transition to something else.”
Today, his father is lauded primarily for his unwavering loyalty to the party. His grave in northwest China is now part of a “patriotic education base” where officials often gather to renew their oaths to the party and bow before a statue of Xi Zhongxun.
Carved in granite in front of the statue is a Mao quote: “The party’s interests come first.”
Mr. Xi was expected to have conflicted views of Mao, having learned to revere him but also having suffered because of him.
The surprise has been the extent to which he has sought to resurrect Mao as a source of legitimacy for the party and himself.
In 1968, Mao tried to restore order by sending millions of young people into the countryside to be “educated.”
That is how Mr. Xi, at age 15, wound up in Liangjiahe, a cluster of about three dozen homes, mostly traditional cave dwellings, 220 miles northeast of his father’s birthplace.
Conditions were brutal. Flea-ridden and often hungry, he spent much of the next seven years building wells, digging fields and herding sheep. There was no school.
Many in his generation had similar experiences and, after Mao’s death in 1976, returned home disillusioned.
Since taking power, Mr. Xi has deliberately cultivated comparisons with Mao, and used his Liangjiahe years as the centerpiece of his political origin story.
Today, tour guides in the village depict Mr. Xi being transformed from a weak, confused teenager into a hardy man of the people.
Recently, inside one cave, a guide pointed out the raised brick platform that Mr. Xi and five others used as a bed.
The guide gave a selective account of Mr. Xi’s stay: He found it tough at first, but soon won over villagers through his hard work and ended up as local party chief, the guide said.
Local officials tailed a visiting Wall Street Journal reporter and stopped every attempted interview.
People who speak with Mr. Xi or study his record say his time in the village was transformative.
They say he developed an affinity and sense of duty to China’s rural poor, and a pragmatism through dealing with village life. Villagers turned to him for advice, feeding his self-image as a born leader.
He brought two suitcases of books with him and borrowed many more, reading them obsessively and absorbing ideas, according to people who have spoken with him.
Some of the frayed volumes are displayed in one cave, including “Lenin on War and Peace,” Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” two books on foreign policy by Henry Kissinger and the collected writings of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who pioneered Nazi Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics.
Years later, he would mention his reading frequently, quoting from foreign or Chinese classical works and boasting that he mastered the core tenets of Marxism in the village.
Some who know him see that as a conscious emulation of Mao, who prided himself on his literary prowess.
Others detect a sensitivity about his lack of formal schooling. A former secretary to Mao, after meeting Mr. Xi in the 2000s, described him as having “elementary school level” education.
Mr. Xi won a place to study chemical engineering at a university in Beijing in 1975, but as a “worker-peasant-soldier,” selected before competitive entry exams and regular teaching resumed.
After China’s market-opening reforms began in 1979, most of Mr. Xi’s contemporaries, including his siblings, focused on improving their lives, often going into business.
Mr. Xi was one of the few princelings who chose a political career and often complained to friends about the corruption and materialism around him.
Some familiar with those princelings believe they never lost their reverence for Mao.
Mr. Xi, as leader, has adopted many of Mao’s titles, rhetorical terms and political techniques, and declared Mao’s achievements to be on par with the reform era that followed.
He had pragmatic reasons as well. In the years before he took power, he came to believe that criticism of Mao was undermining the party’s foundations, just as condemnation of Stalin eroded faith in its Soviet equivalent.
Mr. Xi saw how Bo Xilai, another princeling, became hugely popular as party chief in the city of Chongqing with a campaign to revive strongman rule and egalitarian Maoist ideals.
Liberal-minded Chinese, appalled at the rehabilitation of a man who many historians believe caused the death of more than 40 million people, now warn of a new Cultural Revolution.
Cai Xia, a former Party School professor in exile in the U.S., accuses Mr. Xi of making the party into a “political zombie” and warns of major chaos in the next five years.
Mr. Xi, however, appears to believe he can use digital censorship and surveillance to achieve the political control Mao aspired to, without upending society.
“The legacy I think he is drawing on is not Mao the revolutionary, the radical,” said Jude Blanchette, a Chinese politics expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and author of a book on China’s neo-Maoist movement.
“It’s a nation-building Mao, the Mao who fought the U.S. to a draw in the Korean War.”
In the spring of 1979, shortly after Mr. Xi graduated from the university, he got a job, with his father’s help, as a secretary to Geng Biao, then a vice premier responsible for national defense.
It gave him a three-year crash course in elite politics, international relations and military affairs.
He gained an inside view of U.S.-China relations, learning to see the U.S. as both a partner and a potential threat.
He traveled abroad for the first time, visiting Europe with Mr. Geng. He also learned the political importance of the People’s Liberation Army and built a network of military contacts.
“I have an insoluble bond with the army,” Xi Jinping said in a speech last year. “From a young age, I learned a lot about our military history and witnessed the demeanor of many older generation army leaders.”
Mr. Geng was an army veteran who had served with Mr. Xi’s father, been ambassador to six countries and led the International Liaison Department, which managed ties with Communists abroad.
When Mr. Xi joined him, he was vice premier and secretary-general of the Central Military Commission, which controls the armed forces. In 1981, he became defense minister.
It was a big change for Mr. Xi. He wore a military uniform, accompanied Mr. Geng to most meetings and handled confidential documents, according to accounts from Mr. Geng’s relatives and biographer.
The two men often rode together in Mr. Geng’s Mercedes-Benz—an extraordinary luxury then—and regularly unwound playing Go, a Chinese board game.
Mr. Geng was demanding and security-conscious, insisting that Mr. Xi memorize meetings’ proceedings rather than take notes, according to those accounts. T
to this day, Mr. Xi memorizes large portions of speeches and rarely uses notes in private meetings.
China had just normalized relations with the U.S. and fought a short war with Vietnam that ended in stalemate, a humiliation that still haunts the PLA.
Mr. Geng’s priority was to build military ties with Washington to counterbalance Soviet power, and in 1980 he went to the U.S. to try to negotiate the purchase of American weapons.
The U.S. arranged a display of top-tier weaponry, plus a White House screening of “The Empire Strikes Back.”
But it offered to sell only nonlethal equipment, and it pledged to continue arming the island of Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a rebel province.
“In developing China-U.S. relations, we can’t be too excessive or hasty,” Mr. Geng warned in his report on the trip, according to his biography.
“On some questions, the U.S. is going to maintain unreasonable positions, and we should conduct necessary and appropriate struggle against it.”
The lesson for Mr. Xi was that while cooperation with the U.S. could potentially benefit both countries, their long-term strategic interests weren’t aligned, people who study that era say.
Through his contact with military officers, he became sensitive to territorial issues, especially Taiwan and the South China Sea, and a mind-set that from the 1990s increasingly viewed the U.S. as China’s adversary.
He also witnessed firsthand how Deng Xiaoping courted support from the military during a power struggle between 1979 and 1981 that resulted in his emergence as China’s top leader.
More than three decades later, Mr. Xi would use similar tactics, first establishing firm control of the military, then consolidating his power elsewhere.
“He saw how central politics really worked: The most important thing is to seize actual power,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor at a newspaper published by the Party School.
Mr. Geng remained a mentor, and when he died, Mr. Xi helped to collect his ashes, an honor usually reserved for the eldest son.
After leaving Mr. Geng’s office, Mr. Xi went into local government for the next 25 years.
Following his promotion in 2007 to the Politburo Standing Committee, the top decision-making body, he was increasingly exposed to a debate between advocates and opponents of liberalization, which intensified after the global financial crisis.
That’s when he got to know Wang Huning, a former academic who became his top political adviser.
Mr. Wang, now 65, emerged in the mid-1980s as a leader among “neo-authoritarian” scholars who argued that China needed enlightened autocracy, rather than liberalization, to modernize.
“He believed China needed a leader who is pragmatic and farsighted, who knows the country well, and who has the necessary powers to guide it,” said Ren Xiao, a former student of Mr. Wang at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “He’s been quite consistent in that.”
In 1995, Mr. Wang joined the party’s Central Policy Research Office, which gives advice and writes speeches for top leaders.
He became its director in 2002 and, from 2007, worked alongside Mr. Xi, including on a team responsible for party building.
When Mr. Xi took power, he relied primarily on Mr. Wang to revamp party ideology in a way that married Mr. Xi’s instincts with countercurrents that were bursting into view on new social media platforms.
Ultranationalists were calling for a more aggressive stance toward the U.S. Other scholars were calling for a revival of Confucianism, a philosophy that advocates strict obedience to social hierarchy.
China’s state-sector reforms and 2001 World Trade Organization entry gave rise to “new left” thinkers who railed against corruption and inequality.
Mr. Xi rarely expressed views on those debates. After the global financial crisis, however, he became less guarded as many in the Chinese elite became convinced that free-market democracy was in decline.
Visiting Mexico as vice president in 2009, he took a thinly veiled swipe at the U.S. “Some foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do, point fingers at our affairs,” he said. China didn’t export revolution, poverty or hunger, he added: “What else is there to say?”
In 2010, he visited Chongqing and endorsed the Maoist revival championed by Mr. Bo, the city’s party chief, which included mass performance of revolutionary songs.
In 2011, he met with then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in China. Mr. Xi talked at length about the Soviet collapse and how authoritarian leaders in the Middle East were recently overthrown because they lost touch with their people and failed to control corruption, according to people familiar with those conversations.
“He really clearly signaled that the party faced some existential challenges, in his view, and that things had to change,” said Mr. Russel, the former U.S. official.
“What I took away was: There were too many power centers, and not only does the country need a strong hand, the party needs a strong hand.”
The following year, the party was thrown into turmoil when a former Chongqing police chief fled to a U.S. consulate in China and alleged that Mr. Bo’s wife had murdered a British businessman.
She was convicted and jailed for life. Mr. Bo got a life sentence for graft and abusing power.
The scandal eliminated from contention for the Standing Committee the one person with comparable clout to Mr. Xi’s, and gave him an opening to target other powerful individuals in coming years for allegedly conspiring with Mr. Bo to seize power.
It also brought to a head the internal debate over China’s future. Critics of liberalization, especially among princelings, prevailed, arguing that only a strongman could save the party.
That gave Mr. Wang, who became his top political adviser and joined the 25-member Politburo in 2012, a unique opportunity to influence a leader whose instincts and circumstances aligned with his statist views on how to improve China’s governance.
Mr. Wang, who accompanied Mr. Xi to most meetings and on foreign visits in his first term, is widely considered the architect of the “China Dream” concept and Xi Jinping Thought, which was written into the party constitution in 2017, when Mr. Wang joined the Standing Committee.
Party School professor Han Qingxiang described Mr. Wang as a “great theorist” whose policy-making clout “cannot be underestimated.”
Mr. Xi “is definitely influenced in some ways by comrade Wang Huning, but Wang Huning is influenced even more by the general secretary,” Mr. Han said.
Mr. Xi and his advisers describe his doctrine primarily in Marxist terms, and, while pledging not to impose it on other countries, portray it as a model for them that proves the superiority of socialism over capitalism.
Xin Ming, a Party School professor, said in an interview arranged by the government press office that Mr. Xi’s Marxism was an updated version that incorporated some Western and traditional Chinese thinking, and considered Communism a distant, yet-to-be-defined ideal that would not be realized even by the centenary of Mao’s victory in 2049.
Other scholars studying Mr. Xi’s doctrine say its Marxist content is limited, noting that he doesn’t advocate class struggle or eliminating private property, and that he has cracked down on both Marxist student activists and liberal voices.
They see it as a fusion of Mr. Wang’s thinking with new left, neo-Confucian and other illiberal ideas in an attempt to unify the party, legitimize Mr. Xi’s concentration of power and forge a new model of authoritarian government.
Some detect the influence of Carl Schmitt, a German legal theorist whose ideas the Nazis used to justify unlimited executive power.
Chinese scholars who advise the government have invoked Mr. Schmitt in recent years, including Jiang Shigong, a Peking University law professor who helped devise Beijing’s policy on Hong Kong.
In a recent essay, Mr. Jiang described Xi Jinping Thought as a “new system for comprehensive party leadership of the state,” arguing that the introduction of the rule of law in China after 1979 had undermined the party’s authority.
“This new party-state system is undoubtedly an important organizational part of the China solution” whose ultimate goal was “creating a new order for human civilization,” he wrote.
Mr. Jiang declined to comment.
China’s containment of the Covid-19 pandemic within its own borders has made Mr. Xi more confident in his governance model, people who speak with him say.
In November, he pledged to double China’s gross domestic product by 2035. China’s aging society and debt problems will make that challenging.
Mr. Xi faces a mounting backlash abroad, especially from democracies alarmed by his Muslim internments, Hong Kong crackdown and aggressive diplomacy.
Even some in the party think he has overreached and may face resistance to any effort to continue ruling after 2022. Few people, inside or outside the party, would bet against him though.
“There’s something about Xi Jinping’s political schoolcraft which suggests to me that he is capable of navigating what I think will still be a stormy period ahead,” said Mr. Rudd, the former Australian prime minister. “There’s a steeliness to him.”